Thursday, July 22, 2010

Of Readers and Vendors

I should begin with the disclaimer that I have never read a book in its entirety through a digital device. I have read chapter-length excerpts in a variety of settings, some of which were experimental; and I make it a point to follow both news and opinion about the emergence of both hardware and software platforms for "digital reading." However, there are too many aspects of my physical approaches to reading (both of which are in play with the two books I am currently reading) that are either ignored or impeded by the technologies that are out there. I should observe, also because it amounts to a disclaimer, that I live within a fifteen-minute walk of the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. I know that most downloads now take less time than a round trip on foot, but, as I hope I can explain, going to a library is often as much of a reading experience as the time I spend with whatever I take home.

I offer these statements in the context of having read David Carnoy's latest post to Crave, the CNET "gadget blog." Here is the crux of Carnoy's report:

The Wylie Agency, which represents authors such as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and John Updike, is publishing 20 books through its new Odyssey Editions imprint and making them available for sale exclusively in's Kindle Store for $9.99.

Andrew Wylie, the founder and head of the agency, has been locked in a battle with publishing houses over the digital rights to a number of modern classics and "backlist" titles. His new move makes a big statement to big-name publishers, which have been shut out of a potentially lucrative revenue stream. Because digital rights have only been included in more-recent book publishing contracts, the electronic rights to a multitude of famous books are held by authors.

Deals, such as this one with Wylie, have the potential of netting authors or their estates much higher royalties than if they'd signed an e-book deal with a major publishing house.

Currently, the standard cut offered by publishing houses to authors is 25 percent of the net price of an e-book. Amazon offers a 70 percent cut to self-published authors of Kindle titles, so you get an idea how the numbers likely skew much better for authors in the deal struck by Wylie.

Amazon said this is the first time any of the titles--which include Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint," and Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man"--have been available electronically. All of the books are exclusive to the Kindle Store for two years. Other titles include Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children," Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," John Cheever's "The Stories of John Cheever" and four novels from John Updike's Rabbit series.

I was less interested in whether or not this would be a "game-changer" in the publishing industry than I was in the first comment to the post (submitted by "doubtthat"), which began with the following sentence:

As proven by Amazon a year or so ago, you never truly own an eBook on a Kindle or Nook, you are only renting it.

I realized that this comment provided a (gentle?) reminder that most e-commerce promoters still miss out on some fundamental questions of economic foundations where reading matter is concerned. On the one hand we have the publishing industry, where all forms of reading matter are commodities to be manufactured, marketed, and sold. On the other hand we have libraries, which are basically service organizations for readers and are compensated on a fee-for-service basis, either by government for making the service public or by the readers. Because bits cannot be owned (at least not the way that atoms can), "selling" digitized reading matter probably comes closer to the model of a public library than to that of a publisher. Unfortunately, those for whom publishing is a business do not want to see their business turn into a library service; so they will try mightily to maintain the ownership concept, even if it is little more than a "fiction of convenience." Of course since money, itself, is a "fiction of convenience," this distinction may not matter very much in the long run!

What is important, however, is that serious readers, whether they are scholars or simply seekers of the "pleasures of the text," have two major concerns where technology is involved. One has to do with whether or not technology is playing a useful role in making decisions about what to read. The other has to do with how they read (as a "work practice") and whether or not technology facilitates or impedes their activities. The publishing industry has never cared very much about the latter concern. Public libraries have not given it much attention either, but librarians appreciate the nature of the beast and some are generous enough to offer advice in the matter. As far as selecting reading matter is concerned, there is no question that there is less bias from libraries and librarians than there is from the commodity-based publishing industry and any of its channels in both the virtual and physical worlds! On the other hand those with a financial stake in the publishing industry have a lot more clout than the community of serious readers, even if they do not outnumber the population of that community. Thus, however the world of digital reading matter emerges, those serious readers are unlikely to be beneficiaries.

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